The THES continues its series on subjects at the top and bottom of the popularity stakes. History, by its very nature, is chiefly concerned with the imponderables of the past, writes Huw Richards. But it is the uncertainties of the near future that are causing concern in the subject's academic circles.
The subject remains one of the staple university disciplines. By the beginning of July there were 36,206 applications to read history, and 1,424 for economic and social history, both marginally up on the corresponding figure for last year. This represented 6,791 applicants, including 266 aspirants for economic and social history places.
Unlike other popular subjects, demand and supply are in reasonable balance. Last year 5,650 aspirants won places to read history, with a further 306 accepted for economic and social history degrees. There has been steady growth in the number of history students and gradual attrition of the economic and social group.
History departments may appear to be a haven of relative calm amid the controlled chaos of the late stages of the admissions process. A-levels candidates numbered 42,547 this year, down from a peak of 46,698 in 1992, but very little different from the 1989 figure. This gentle decline is balanced by a steady upward drift in grades.
But historians worry about what is happening in schools. Exclusion from the core element of the slimmed-down national curriculum is seen as a genuine threat. Chris Wrigley, professor of history at Nottingham University and president of the Historical Association, said: "We are hearing increasingly from teacher members that there is pressure to marginalise history from 14 up. Britain is the only European country, apart from Albania, that does not regard history as an essential part of the curriculum from 14 up."
Relatively stable A-level results conceal concern over the toughness of the examination. Professor Wrigley said: "Anecdotal evidence that A-level history is tough was reinforced by research for the Dearing commission showing that only maths, chemistry and general studies are tougher. History comes out roughly on a level with physics, German and French."
The worry is that both factors will choke off the stream of potential applicants. Those who make it through the applications process find teaching and assessment have changed over the past 20 years. Anthony Fletcher, professor of history at Essex University and convenor of the History at the Universities Defence Group (HUDG), points to a HUDG survey showing that assessment is gaining ground on examinations: "We found proportions of 30 to 50 per cent of final marks were the norm."
Insistence is growing that students produce some form of dissertation. Professor Fletcher said: "Ten years ago this was very unusual, with Manchester the main exception. Now it is pretty well universal."
This highly successful innovation is, he says, popular with students and staff, and a useful means of spotting those equipped for research careers: "Some dissertations have been published, while others form the base of further work which has taken some students as far as PhD level."
Intellectual fashions inevitably affect courses offered. Professor Fletcher points to Oxford as the exception, rather than the rule it once was, in offering an outline Romans to 20th century course: "Departments have generally moved towards offering more limited periods."
The rise of contemporary history reflects student interest. Professor Wrigley finds immense demand for Nottingham's "World History since 1945" course. But medieval courses are holding up too.
Professor Wrigley's belief that social, cultural and women's history are growth areas is echoed by Professor Fletcher and by Peter Marshall, Royal Historical Society president and emeritus professor of imperial history at King's College, London. Professor Marshall said: "While my personal preference might be for historians to look at the economic relations between different groups in imperial systems rather than their representations of each other, there is no doubt that the interest in social and cultural history has made empire history extremely buoyant."
Economic history is doing less well. Huw Bowen, head of the department of economic and social history at Leicester University, argues that this is in part a consequence of success, with economic and social elements increasing suffusing previously politically dominated mainstream history courses.
Will historians get jobs? History should undoubtedly equip its graduates for the role of informed, inquiring citizen. This is one reason why so many history graduates can be found working as journalists.
It is less likely to equip them for direct entry to the workforce. A recent survey by History Today found divided opinions on job prospects, but a broad consensus that the number of those going on to masters courses in history and vocational subjects are growing.
* In 1996-97 there were 25,817 students on history courses in British universities. Of these 12,581 were male and 13,236 female. Overseas students accounted for 1,820.
* In 1996 5,650 applicants were accepted for places on history courses. This compares to 5,329 in 1994: a 6 per cent increase.
Source: UCAS and HESA